Touring The (Launched) 18th-Century Common

[Note: This blog was originally posted on HASTAC as part of a three-blog series on The 18th-Century Common. Blogs 1 and 2 of this series are linked herein.]

As a Romanticist, I am always tickled when I read or listen to a news story that mentions the era that I study. I had an NPR “driveway” moment this fall during which I sat in my parked car and listened to the story about 18th-century scholar Natalie Phillips’ (MSU) research on Jane Austen, reading, and distraction. Phillips’ research uses modern neuroscientific tools to study the brain’s response to different ways of reading–close reading and casual reading–and also studies 18th-century conceptions of neuroscience and theories of cognitive attention. The blogged version of the story received a flurry of comments and other popular news outlets, including Salon.com and dailymail.co.uk, covered Phillips’ study as well.

The 18th-Century Common, “a public humanities website for enthusiasts of 18th-century studies,” is on to popular culture’s budding interests in 18th-century culture and, in particular, where science and the Humanities rub elbows. In fact, one of its first calls for contributions seeks responses to Phillips’ research or related pieces on cognitive science and the Humanities. This relatively new website will offer similar kinds of stories written by scholars about 18th-century topics that are geared toward a curious public, non-academic audience–much like NPR’s listeners. My first blog post about The 18th-century Common introduces the project; I wrote it after I presented on a NASSR panel with one of the website’s co-editors, Andrew Burkett (Union College). My second post provides a sneak peek at the blog’s features while it was still under construction this fall. This post will take you on a tour of the launched site and explain updates and improvements that you’ll find there that were not covered in my previous posts.

Three Feeds of Content in the Common
Historically, a “common” is private property that is open for various kinds of public use; it brings people together and is based on the idea of open access to a shared space. In this spirit, The 18th-Century Common aims to deliver scholarly research on 18th-century culture to a wide array of interested readers beyond the Academy, from students to pleasure readers. It accomplishes this by publishing three kinds of feeds on a single website. The first two (Collections and Blog) provide non-peer-reviewed essays, or digests of peer-reviewed published essays, for a broad public readership. In these, scholars write about their research while gleefully setting aside discipline specific jargon, dense theory, and allusions that would be abstruse to someone who has not done graduate coursework in the field. (If you find a “body without organs,” it will refer to a skeleton.) The third feed, called the Gazette, runs “shorts” that link to 18th-century content on the web and also calls for scholars to supply new content. New content can be cross-posted under multiple feeds if applicable. The Common also has a Forum page where users can leave feedback and a hearty Resources page that lists links to 18th-century DH projects, historical sources, online texts, bibliographies, blogs, and online periodicals. Here’s a little more about each of the three main feeds.

– Collections —
Collections are like issues or topics under which essays on a similar subject are grouped. For example, The Age of Wonder is The 18th-Century Common’s first collection of 7 essays (though it can grow to include more) written by scholars and students that respond in various ways to Richard Holmes’ popular book The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science (Knopf, 2009). This collection contains Jessica Richard’s round-up of online resources referring to Sir William Herschel, in celebration of his November 15th birthday; Morna O’Neill’s essay on the visual and images of genius in Holmes’ book, Margaret Ewalt’s essay on pre-Romantic-era ideas of “wonder”; Grant McAllister’s essay on the figure of the German mad scientist; Richard’s essay on Mungo Park’s 1794 voyage to explore the Niger River as participating in the need to define Africa as a subject of wonder in scientific terms and within the context of the slave trade; Rebecca Kurzweil’s essay on Romantic-era poets’ esteem for scientific studies and the fusion of aesthetics and science in the poetic form of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Mont Blanc; and Trista Johnson’s essay on Caroline Herschel’s contributions to astronomy.

A call for contributions to the website’s second collection, “Cognitive Science and the Humanities in 18th-Century Studies,” can be found in the Gazette section.

– Blog –
The Blog is a feed for short, non-peer-reviewed essays written by scholars on various 18th-century topics that do not necessarily form a cohesive collection. To me, this looks like a feed to which one could contribute a short essay based on research on the 18th century inspired by travel, teaching, politics, or a morsel or digest of a larger project. The blog feed is already populated with diverse entries, including “The University of Woodford Square and the Age of Obama” by Roncevert Almond; “‘African’ in Early Haiti, or How to Fight Stereotypes” by Lesley Curtis; “Taxes Are Evil” by Heather Welland; and “Fear and Love in a Revolutionary War” by Jake Ruddiman.

— The Gazette —
While the blog contains original short essays, the Gazette is a playful series of long updates, a bit like an embellished Twitter feed, that features content gathered from around the Web related to 18th-century studies as well as explanations and commentary on the content. It also features news and editors’ announcements, such as a call for contributions for a new collection. For example, Jessica Richard posted a Gazette short called “Daniel Defoe around the Web” in which she compiles websites with brief annotations for the Defoe-curious, such as Steven H. Gregg’s Defoe blog. The Gazette also announces an exhibition in New York City called “Radiohole:  Inflatable Frankenstein!” and relates it to other recent Shelley exhibits in Manhattan, including the NYPL’s “Shelley’s Ghost: The Afterlife of a Poet.” In addition, this newsfeed calls for contributions to new collections, such as Cognitive Science and 18th-century Studies. The Gazette feed can be found on the right-side menu on the homepage.

New under the Hood: Technical Updates
Since my last blog post early this fall, there have been many significant technical updates to the website made by Damian Blankenship (Wake Forest) and his team. First, the homepage received a great makeover: a new nature-inspired background image (to invoke the idea of a “common”) and an improved layout that I think makes the different components of this website easier to locate.

Compared to the previous GUI, the remodel looks less like a website still in development and more like a new but up-and-running multi-faceted e-pub, which is its actual status. Also, the front page is no longer static — recent posts from collections and blogs are displayed at the bottom of the front page, and posts from the “Gazette” are listed on the right side.

Also of note, the site transitioned from .com to .org to more clearly communicate the non-commercial nature of the project. Conscious of the popular audience that the site hopes to reach, Blankenship is also modifying the site for improved use on tablets and smart phones as well as social media integration with a WordPress plug-in called Jetpack. Mobile users will be able to access all of the content on the website from a simplified menu and new posts will be automatically published on Facebook, and, in the near future, on the @18Common Twitter feed, as well.

Who Oversees The 18th-Century Common?
The 18th-Century Common has two advisory boards: an internal and an external board. The internal board is comprised of co-editors Burkett and Richard, as well as members who participated in the 2010-11 NEH-funded faculty seminar at Wake Forest, “Science and the Arts in the Eighteenth Century,” that led to the building of the website and who worked closely with the site’s co-editors. All WFU professors, the internal board includes Margaret Ewalt (Assoc. Professor, Spanish), Grant McAllister (Assoc. Professor and Chair, German and Russian), Morna O’Neill (Assist. Professor, Art History), John Ruddiman (Assist. Professor, History), Heather Welland (Assist. Professor, History), and Byron Wells (Professor of French, Chair of Romance Languages).

External board members include a star-studded line-up of distinguished professors from a variety of institutions who work in eighteenth-century studies and Romanticism studies and who are also heavily invested in Digital Humanities work. They include Devoney Looser (Missouri), Jack Lynch (Rutgers), Laura Mandell (Texas A&M), Benjamin Pauley (Eastern Connecticut State), and Linda Troost (Washington & Jefferson).

Contact, Follow, Contribute, Discuss
You can follow or tweet The 18th-Century Common on Twitter (@18Common) as well as follow on Facebook. Calls for contributions can be found here. Each entry in 18Common has a comment thread for readers to respond to posts and to each other.

Final Thoughts
I like this new project a lot and I admire the scholars that are behind it for their work, energy, and desire to make this a public scholarly endeavor — because of its expanded audience, there is a lot of room for it to grow in terms of technology, contributions, and conversations. I think that this website has the potential to create a vibrant interactive community of scholars and public intellectuals who are giddy about the same topics and who contribute meaningfully to the content and discussions about it. Since it’s the holidays, I offer a father/daughter, or non-scholar/scholar example. I’m studying 18th-century mirrors and optics for part of my dissertation on late-Romantic-era literature and media. My father, on the other hand, is not keen on old books or even fiction, but has a degree in engineering, has fun solving physics equations, and geeks out on technology and electronics. We may seem like intellectual opposites, but we meet at Herschel. I gifted him an e-copy of The Age of Wonder (Holmes) for Christmas for his Nook, with a link to The 18th-Century Common in my note.

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